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Medford superintendent, deputy approved ban of graphic novel

Top administrators ordered the 2019 version of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ removed from North Medford HS after smaller group could not agree

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion and his deputy made the decision to remove the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from the district’s library collection in April after a committee of officials could not come to consensus on what to do with the controversial book.

Those new details were provided by the school district’s attorney, Thad Pauck, who issued written responses to questions posed by the Oregon Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this month.

The committee has argued against the district’s decision to pull two copies of the graphic novel from the North Medford High School library after a single parent complained and requested its removal for all students.

“Following the discussion at this meeting, there were two staff members that recommended removal, and at least one staff member that did not recommend removal,” Pauck wrote of meeting called to discuss the 2019 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, which tells a story in pictures about a totalitarian state in which the few fertile women left are forced to reproduce.

“Since a consensus was not reached, all of the information provided at the meeting was brought to the deputy superintendent and superintendent for consideration of a final district decision,” Pauck wrote.

Pauck was referring to Champion and Jeanne Grazioli, the district’s deputy superintendent, saying they reviewed the same materials as the group — the graphic novel itself, the parent’s complaint, district policies and “other related documents.”

Upon learning about his involvement in the decision, the Mail Tribune requested an interview with Champion, which was denied. However, district spokeswoman Natalie Hurd offered a response via email about the book’s ban.

“We removed the graphic novel because as stated earlier, we found numerous images of nudity, sexual assault and violence throughout the graphic novel. Thus, we determined it does not meet the needs of the school nor the needs of individual students,” Hurd wrote. “Recognizing the importance of Atwood’s work, however, we ensured students had access to the original novel in our collection.”

She added that students could find copies of the graphic novel at the Jackson County Public Library, which ordered extras in the days after the district’s decision.

Hurd declined to answer every question posed by the newspaper for this story, including how the graphic novel made it into the North Medford High School’s library in May 2019 and October 2021.

The more substantive statement Hurd issued was similar to one the district issued in April. Pauck’s responses to the Intellectual Freedom Committee, however, justified the district’s decision in a different way.

“The ultimate decision to remove the book entirely, as opposed to restricting access, was not based on any political or religious grounds but instead was made solely on the grounds that a reasonable person could find the illustrations in the book to be not suitable or appropriate for all ages of high school students,” Pauck wrote.

The lawyer said such a finding is similar to other school board policies requiring teachers to use edited versions of PG-13 or R-rated films during instruction.

Pauck added that the decision to ban the 2019 version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made “notwithstanding the value of graphic literature in the general sense” and the group “discussed the value of keeping graphic novels in our library collections” before their meeting ended.

Even with Pauck’s answers, Emily O'Neal, co-chair of Intellectual Freedom Committee, said members of her group are still left with “ambiguity” and “uncertainty” about the ban and have more questions for the district.

“We have to have a meeting with our president of (the Oregon Library Association) and see what sort of support and next-step action she and the board want us to take,” said O’Neal. “At the minimum, what we want to do is … get the word out on what process was taken to remove this book and where the faults were.”

Knowing those answers will help the committee, which regularly consults with librarians and administrators on challenged and banned materials in schools and libraries.

“I know the policy part of the conversation is maybe not the most exciting, but it does, ultimately, come down to that,” O’Neal said. “What we can learn from this process is that there are gaps that exist — and where those gaps exist, we can help fill them so that this doesn’t happen the next time.”

The committee not only hopes to help the district on its own policies, it encourages a conversation with relevant stakeholders about intellectual freedom itself.

“Let’s talk about, What is the value of this title? What is the value of all book titles?” O’Neal said. “What is the value of the ability to allow individuals within your school to think for themselves? And for them to decide what materials are appropriate for themselves — or for their parents to make that decision.”

The conversation would also involve why intellectual freedom does not involve book banning.

“Those are the exact materials we need to be talking about,” O’Neal said. “Those are the ones that help us learn about the world around us.”

That is true even if depictions of the book’s plot are graphic, she said. What’s more, she added, anyone who picks up a copy of the 2019 alternative version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” might see a correlation between the world it depicts and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to leave the issue of abortion up to the states.

“It’s hard to look at the decisions about Roe v. Wade and not see it as an impact to the rights of women and our own bodies,” O’Neal said. “That is absolutely a theme within the graphic novel.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.